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America’s Defense Pact with Australia and the U.K. Has Humiliated France’s Macron. But It Might Also Help Him

6 minute read

For years, French President Emmanuel Macron butted heads, bit his tongue in frustration, and lashed out at former President Donald Trump, who refused to yield an inch to his entreaties about global cooperation. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement on climate change—cherished projects for Macron—and trashed the NATO military alliance as “obsolete.”

Small wonder, then, that Macron hailed President Joe Biden’s victory last November with ebullient excitement, tweeting within moments, “Let’s work together!”

But any hopes for a reinvigorated Franco-American alliance were dashed on Thursday, when Australia revealed it had secretly negotiated a military pact with the U.S. and the U.K., known as AUKUS, in the volatile Indo-Pacific region. The deal, which involves building nuclear-powered military submarines in Australia—China’s nearest Western-allied neighbor—left France completely in the cold.

The three countries hid their agreement from their French ally, which had spent years crafting its own deal to supply Australia with conventional submarines worth an estimated $50 billion; that deal is now off.

The fury from Paris was immediate. Macron promptly summoned home France’s ambassadors to Australia and the U.S. and the detente threatens to harden into the deepest diplomatic rift with Washington in decades, including during the Trump era. “The sense of treason is very strong,” French Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault said, as he headed to Paris on the weekend. “It was intentionally decided to keep France completely in the dark.”

As of Tuesday morning, Biden and Macron have yet to talk—a phone meeting is expected this week—but French officials have not held back in their outrage. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the deal as “a stab in the back,” and on Monday, he called the subterfuge between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia “brutal.” “Europeans should not be left by the wayside,” he told reporters in New York. “That is the mindset we are in right now.”

What the feud means for Macron

Macron’s ministers have likely fumed with his tacit approval, but the president himself has so far remained silent. A furious outburst risks severing a bilateral relationship crucial for several urgent issues, from climate change to anti-terrorism.

Yet taking a tough line with the U.S. might also bring political benefits, according to some analysts in Paris, if Macron is able to position himself as a leader standing his ground against the world’s preeminent and arrogant superpower.

Macron faces a difficult election next April for a second five-year term as President, with at least six candidates running against him. His most likely challenger in the second, run-off vote is the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, who has cast Macron as being too eager to act in lockstep with Washington, rather than purely in French interests.

“Don’t forget we are campaigning for presidential elections, and in France, it is always easy to fuel a latent anti-Americanism, and very easy to fuel it in the current circumstances,” says Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. “It is not just the industrial deal,” he told TIME on Monday. “It’s the overall attitude of the U.S., which is seen as a continuation from Trump to Biden: A system of alliance without consultation.”

In that, Macron’s feud with Biden could well benefit him among his voters. “They would be delighted if this dustup continues,” says François Heisbourg, special advisor to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “This is a positive for Macron.”

Despite winning political points, however, Macron’s feelings of hurt are palpable, with a sense that his warmth towards Biden was unrequited.

“The anger is deep and abiding,” says Heisbourg, whose organization has been involved in bilateral meetings between France and Australia for the past decade; he has attended several. “Three allies decided to conspire behind the back of a fourth ally, keeping secrets, and depriving the fourth ally of billions of euros,” he says. “In essence, this was a cabal.”

Proving the president’s point

The diplomatic feud over the submarines comes only weeks after the U.S. acted unilaterally, and some say rashly, in another foreign environment: Afghanistan.

Biden decided to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31, with little consultation of military allies — including the U.K., France and Germany. That is despite the fact that all three countries, and other E.U. members, lost hundreds of soldiers in Afghanistan, fighting alongside the U.S. in the 20-year war.

As the heartbreaking scenes of chaos and desperation at Kabul Airport last month played on European television, Macron pleaded with Biden to evacuate all Afghan allies, telling the U.S. President by phone on August 19 that they had a “moral responsibility” to rescue them from the Taliban.

The Afghan debacle appeared to prove a point that Macron has pushed hard with European Union leaders, since becoming President in 2017: That the E.U. needs to beef up its own military capability, in order to have strategic autonomy from an increasingly disengaged U.S., and to hold its own in geopolitics.

Until now, the 27 E.U. leaders, deeply divided on several issues, have resisted Macron’s calls for ramping up military capabilities. But Macron’s ideas now seem prescient to some. Macron has long warned that Europe’s interests would be sidelined by the U.S., if they failed to ramp up their military capability.

“In Afghanistan, no E.U. state was able to operate without U.S. support, not even the U.K.,” Andrew Small, senior transatlantic fellow for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told TIME from Berlin on Monday. Small says many European leaders believed Macron’s call for strategic autonomy would fade away after Biden became president. That is no longer the case, after Afghanistan and now the submarine crisis. “It’s being used to say, France and Europe will be treated as a second-tier partner and our interests will be squeezed out,” he says.

Leaders in Europe are now circling the wagons around France. “One of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNN, “so we want to know what happened and why.”

Charles Michel, the former Prime Minister of Belgium and now European Council President, told reporters they had been led to understand “America is back” now that Biden had defeated Trump. “Now we have questions. What does it mean, America is back? Is America back in America or somewhere else?” he said. “We don’t know.”

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